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Reviewed by:
  • Eighteenth-Century British Erotica, Parts I and II, and: When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature
  • Peter Sabor (bio)
Alexander Pettit and Patrick Spedding, gen. eds. Eighteenth-Century British Erotica, Parts I and II. 10 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2002, 2004. 2136+2072pp. US$675+US$675. ISBN 1-85196-742-7; 1-85196-770-2.
Bradford K. Mudge, ed. When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxxiii+332pp. US$74 (hb); US$24.95 (pb). ISBN 0-19-516187-4; 0-19-516188-2.

More than forty years have passed since David Foxon's pioneering Libertine Literature in England, 1660–1745 was published, first as a series of articles in the Book Collector (1963) and then in book form, with an important appendix on John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1964). Foxon's exploration of the publishing history of what his title termed "libertine literature," but which he referred to, disarmingly, as "dirty books," was well ahead of its time. The first sustained study of the subject would appear only in 1988: Peter Wagner's remarkably wide-ranging and erudite Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. This work by a German scholar, based on a Sorbonne doctoral dissertation, remains the most comprehensive guide to the byways and back streets of eighteenth-century erotic literature, and is especially useful in tracing links between English works and their French precursors. More recent works, including Bradford K. Mudge's The Whore's Story: Women, Pornography, and the British Novel, 1684–1830 (2000), James Grantham Turner's Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England, 1534–1685 (2003), and Julie Peakman's Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century England (2003), have supplemented and supplanted Wagner in various ways. And other scholars have begun the task of exploring the long-neglected field of Enlightenment homosexual and lesbian writing: substantial contributions are made in Rictor Norton's Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700–1830 (1992), Cameron McFarlane's The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire 1660–1750 (1997), Lisa L. Moore's Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel (1997), Randolph Trumbach's magisterial Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender [End Page 217] in Enlightenment London (1998), and George E. Haggerty's Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (1999).

Armed with these and several other recent studies, students are now well equipped with guides to a vast and complex field. The problem is that the field itself has remained inaccessible, other than to readers in the largest research libraries. Much eighteenth-century erotica is fugitive, sometimes surviving in single copies, and hitherto only a fraction of the corpus has been available in modern editions. Even such mighty electronic resources as Gale's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) are of limited help for those wishing to explore this material. When Wagner and I prepared our editions of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published by Penguin and Oxford respectively in 1985, we undertook research at the British Library, using works from its Private Case, which contains the world's most extensive collection of eighteenth-century English erotica. We had, however, to sit at a special table, under the close surveillance of a librarian, who could ensure that the material was not having too stimulating an effect on its readers, or over-taxing their self-command.

The publication by Pickering and Chatto of two five-volume sets of Eighteenth-Century British Erotica (ECBE)—over 4,200 pages, containing facsimiles of about a hundred separate items—has changed this state of affairs at last. In selecting their material, the general editors, Alexander Pettit and Patrick Spedding, have cast their net wide, with volumes organized on both a chronological and thematic basis. The first two volumes of the initial set, ECBE I (2002), contain an eclectic mixture of texts from the first half of the century, ranging from John Pomfret's amorous but not erotic poem "The Choice, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 217-222
Launched on MUSE
2006-11-21
Open Access
No
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